In the back room of a private gym on the 23rd floor of an office building, the Shanghai Titans, runners-up to the American Football League of China’s championship, gathered to watch the Super Bowl.
The Titans’ Super Bowl watch party was much like classic ones in the United States. The group had initially planned on going to one of the ten different watch parties at various bars in Shanghai. But, the perks of being in their own space were clear.
Propped up next to the wall-mounted television was the gym’s whiteboard, taken over for a list of prop bets. Guys wore their team sweatshirts and Nike sneakers, with chips and salsa out on the table. As kickoff was at 7:30am Shanghai time, a delivery of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins and coffee came midway through the second quarter to compliment cans of Chinese beer.
Wang Datong, captain of the Shanghai Titans, sees appreciation for American culture among Chinese people as the driving force behind the development of American football in China. “It’s still a very niche sport in China — there are few teams, but it’s still growing,” Wang said. Full tackle football came to Shanghai in 2011, and the American Football League of China (AFLC) was founded soon after by an expat living in Chongqing in 2013. “Initially, it was the ‘wow’ factor with pads and footballs about four or five years ago,” Wang explained. “We had kids come and take selfies and stuff like that, but now they’re realizing it’s fun to play.”
Tom Brady’s in China
Wang started playing American football when he was thirteen and living in Hawaii. After living in the US for twenty years, he came back to China in 2006, and started working for a sports marketing company and teaching flag football to high school and university students. “Back then, no one played. 15 guys was a good turnout.”
This year, the Shanghai Titans, one of two teams in Shanghai, has a roster of 80 registered players. Most teams average about forty to fifty players and are made up of men between college age and their early 40s. “Most Chinese have only been playing for about three or four years, so there’s a wide range of experience and playing level,” Wang said.
Jason Tao is one such college student playing for the Titans. He watched the Super Bowl yesterday morning in between classes with friends. “I wanted to play to be stronger and build muscle, and there are always great teammates to learn from,” Tao said. He first got involved in his university’s flag football team through international friends. Later, a friend from middle school suggested he try the real deal in the AFLC.
Wang is also chairman of the AFLC, one of the two American football leagues in China, and organized the league of 19 teams from 11 different cities, including Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Hefei, Beijing, and Tianjin. “We have a better amateur network here than the US,” Wang said. “The US has college teams and national professional teams, but no amateur league.”
The AFLC is set up like the NFL — they play preseason games, but the real season starts in the fall. Compared to the other American football league in China, CityBowl Alliance, the AFLC is older, a bit more structured, and has better competition. It started in 2013 with eight teams, but has grown with teams now averaging 40-50 players. Wang pointed out that if there was a ranking of the top ten teams in China, eight of them would be AFLC teams.
CityBowl Alliance has 30 teams, and is set up more like the United States’ NCAA. Teams can schedule as many games as they like throughout the entire year rather than just the fall, which gives more flexibility for level of interest, number of players, and ability travel to other cities. The teams in the playoffs are decided by votes of coaches, players, and a panel.
Shanghai Titans (Facebook)
Tao sees room for growth of the sport in China, especially in more international cities. “For kids and teenagers, there are more after-class institutions, and parents are willing to send their kids to learn football,” Tao said. “For the younger generation, more kids that studied in the US are coming back to work in China and will bring back the American football culture. And for middle-aged Chinese, as there are more international companies, Chinese people who work there will also be influenced.”
For now, this culture seems strongest in Shanghai. In this year’s AFLC championship, the Shanghai Titans lost to the Shanghai Warriors. The AFLC just finished its fifth season, and the two Shanghai teams have squared off in the championship game for the last four.
However, Wang noted that the AFLC is now made up of 80% Chinese players. “As the game is going, there are more and more Chinese playing,” Wang said. “Our league used to be dominated by expats, but now Chinese players are becoming the star players.”
Cover image: Shanghai Titans (Facebook)
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